Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
Cauldron of Change Close
to Boiling Over


BY Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 11:33 a.m. Nov. 24, 2000

Lots of issues press for top attention in South Florida. But what's likely to determine everything else? We would nominate culture, how the peoples of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties learn to live together.

The target of more immigrants than any other U.S. region outside New York and Los Angeles, South Florida feels more intensely international than either one. Regardless of which county we were in, it was a rare day for us not to hear two or more languages, on the sidewalks, in restaurants and elevators. We expected that in Miami, but heard it nearly everywhere.

This region bubbles with passionate explanations of why people are so fed up with its tensions and divisions that they're on the brink of leaving. Usually focusing on Miami-Dade, they name racism, public corruption and sometimes a belief that the newly dominant Cuban culture leaves little place for others. The many languages create an aggravating cacophony, the cultural differences a largely unwanted set of mysteries.

Part of the worry is about a community that seems incurably splintered. Venezuelans sticking to themselves, Colombians in enclaves, African Americans alienated and southern men joking at the Palm Beach Rotary about sawing off Miami and letting it float south.

Even by the testimony of its most ardent admirers, South Florida is a tough place to live. Tough, as in tiring, draining.

Discomfort with all this has driven Miami-Dade residents into Broward and Palm Beach,and some people out of the region altogether.

Yet there's a diametrically opposite side, migrants (especially younger people) who came out of curiosity and got addicted to the excitement. Maybe it was the glitz of South Beach or the buzz of technophiles in Boca Raton that first got their attention. But now they say, "I wouldn't live any other place. I'd be bored." In this nearly constant culture churn, with seven of every new 10 people in Miami-Dade and Broward counties moving in from another country, we got an earful of excitement and bewilderment. A black leader told us the region is merely that mixture we always said America was supposed to be, more Cubans than any place save Havana, more Jamaicans than Kingston and Montego Bay, enough Nicaraguans to be the seventh largest city in Florida, the second largest Jewish population in the United States, along with southern-born blacks and whites who came down from the north. "Isn't this the American melting pot," he asked?

Melting pot? South Florida struck us more like a cauldron of cultural change, sometimes threatening to boil over. Now even the Miami Cubans know the bitter taste of discrimination. As one Cuban told us, for more than three decades here, "we were the golden people." Along came Elián and "we discovered that Anglos still believe they are the dominant defaults, everybody else is a minority. This doesn't feel good." Tell that to somebody in Overtown in a crowded apartment with walls that barely keep out the rain and bugs. Blacks from Africa or The Bahamas were here from the heyday of Flagler enterprises and have generations of evidence about discrimination. They still tell the stories in Palm Beach about luring black construction workers to a party on the mainland, while burning down their little village, called Stix, on the island, clearing the way for "better" land uses. Max Castro of the North/South Center at the University of Miami thinks it's like "everybody has three reels of film but watches only one: blacks say 'We were always here.' Whites recall this was a nice, southern town; Cubans claim 'We made this place.' It's intolerance, racism, and arrogance that's killing us." Oddly enough, intensely multicultural South Florida lacks reliable sets of statistics on who has arrived from everywhere, and where they live. But the Broward County School System does do an ethnic count. The results may surprise some who fled Miami-Dade's multicultural milieu. Broward students now come from 166 countries and arrive speaking 56 different languages, but they come mostly from the Caribbean Basin ... the islands, Central America and the northern coast of South America.

In fine-grain detail, the Coordinating Council of Broward now can see the west side with its Filipinos, Chinese, Asian Indians, Brazilians, Arabs and North Africans, Israelis and Russians. Or the heavily Caribbean Hispanic south side, with a side mix of Romanians and Canadians.

Broward County Community College president Willis Holcombe describes a student body from over 100 different countries, with customs so different "we have to be careful about whether shaking hands is OK or not."

This is not your grandfather's Broward. Nor your grandmother's Miami-Dade, because the great foreign influx didn't begin before the 1960s. Nor, for sure, your grandfather's Palm Beach County, unless you count the Guatemalan farmhands brought in decades before Castro's rise to power.

The central question for all three counties is whether they can make an asset rather than a debilitating impediment out of their extraordinary diversity. If the answer is no, if connective tissue can't be grown, if much deeper dialogue among groups can't be generated, then really tragic stories about opportunities come and gone will be the theme of journalists to come.

But if the answer's yes, if the bridges can be built, then the diversity and energy of this region could make this not just one of the most exciting, but also one of the globe's most prosperous and fascinating 21st Century regions.